It is unvarnished to say that our homes during this pandemic are a haven but for some they are zones of domestic brutality and abuse. As most Indians are homebound, the possibility of violence has not only shot up but women have become more vulnerable to abuse and violence. With the announcement of the nationwide lockdown there were several areas where the government did not plan for the possible fallouts. The National Commission for Women which receives various complaints on domestic violence has seen a binate upsurge in the number of complaints during the lockdown which was instituted because of the novel corona virus. A data from NCW shows that 587 complaints were received from March 23 to April 16 out of which 239 associated to domestic violence. The number of complaints on domestic violence was 123 from February 27 to March 22 which has now risen to 239. Above all, the number of cases reported are speculated to be disproportionate to the substantial rise in the domestic violence cases. This is a result of lack of access of mobile phones, internet access, time and space and in a vast majority of cases it is due to lack of courage and strength.
Present-day status in India.
Section 3 of The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 defines domestic violence and its ingredients. An act of omissions shall constitute domestic violence if it harms or injures or endangers the health, safety, limb or well-being, whether mental or physical of the aggrieved person. Section 498A of The Indian Penal Code deals with the criminal offence of cruelty inflicted upon wife by the husband or his relatives. A punishment which may extend to 3 years and a fine has been prescribed. The definition of “cruelty” extensively includes both physical and mental harm caused to the body or health of the women. These laws act as a shield that fortify women from the torture and maltreatment inflicted upon her by the husband and his family.
Domestic violence cases are on a steep rise as women and children are locked up with their abuser. Adding to this the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) released by the Union Ministry states that every third women from the age of 15 faces some kind of domestic violence. These cases are far more common in rural areas than in urban areas making it all the more difficult for cases being reported specially during the coerced lockdown. The victims who could earlier reach out to their family or friends cannot do that anymore because of the lockdown and to make the situation worse they are locked up with their abusers, leaving women to fend for themselves.
The increased cases of violence are a subsequent result of stress, anxiety, economic strain which in no way are justifications for this horrific offence. Unavailability of alcohol, drugs and other abusive substances has instigated the abusers to vent their frustration on their wives. Andhra Pradesh State Women Commission has stated that fear of loss of jobs, salary cuts and uncertain future can be the cause of such frustration.
It is also being said that unprecedented stress and anxiety may breed abuse and maltreatment in households where it was not an issue before. Majority of the women facing abuse want to go their parent’s house, but in the course of this lockdown they can only be sent to state run shelters which are feared to get over crowded and lack basic hygienic facilities. While it is necessary that all resources are redirected to essential services, domestic violence is an issue which needs an urgent attention. It is high time the government takes some steps to abridge the despair of women.
There have been instances where the police refused to register the complaint as the result of the courts being shut due to the mammoth crises. Some victims don’t complaint because they would not be able to leave the shadow of their abuser during the course of the lockdown.
The division bench of Justice JR Midha and Justice Jyoti Singh of the Delhi High Court issued notice to the Centre and other State governments to convene a meeting at the highest level to curb the domestic violence in the time of the current nationwide lockdown. Now it is on the governments to tackle the matter in question with urgency and put forth some actions into immediate effect.
The women belonging to the rich and middle-class category are not immune to this unrelenting treatment. Legal assistance and helpline centres are believed to be inadequate even at the best of times. With lockdown coming into effect these options are absolutely piddling.
Distressing Situation in other countries.
These alarming numbers are not just restricted to India alone but other nations across the globe are also seeing a surge in the numbers. The United Nations General-Secretary Antonio Guteress has made an appeal to all the nations to pay attention and prevent this “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” China, where the landmark domestic violence law came into effect in 2016, the pandemic has had a massive impact on the number of domestic violence cases being reported. Statistics suggest that as much as 90% of the cases have been reported in the time of the pandemic. On the contrary, in the other parts of the world, the apparatus to protect women from domestic abusers is being transformed to take into account social distancing and lockdowns. The French government is set to open pop-up counselling centres and paid hotel rooms for domestic violence victims. Comparatively, no such step has been taken in India for the vulnerable.
Vital steps to be taken.
India being a patriarchal society has always treated women as a vulnerable section. This situation is worsening with the initiation of the nationwide lockdown. The victim should be reached through requisite means and this must be labelled as an essential service by the government. The very first step that has to be taken is to understand the gravity of the situation and to believe the victim. Refusal on behalf of the police for registration of FIRs must be considered a serious offence. Awareness regarding the online registration of complaints can be spread and the police must take up these complaints with utmost importance and vigilance.
Women need a safe and secure shelter away from their abuser. Hotels can be converted into temporary shelter homes for victims, which is of the utmost importance. The same measure has been successfully adopted by France. The Central and the State governments must formulate teams in the Police departments that work specially on this issue. Apart from spreading awareness about the pandemic campaigns must be initiated to spread awareness and to familiarise women about their rights. More helpline numbers must be set up and circulated. However, the success of this measure depends upon how readily the relief will be provided to the victim. The efficiency and readiness shall be of utmost importance.
In the rural areas, the panchayat and the women self-help groups most work hand in hand to provide safety and security to the victim. Front line health care workers can be of immense help as they can be appointed as the first point of contact.
Another step that can lead to a significant improvement is counselling, which shall not only be restricted to the woman. Husbands and other members of the family must also be counselled and made aware of the consequences of such horrifying acts.
National Law University, Odisha.